Audrey Munson – Woman in Stone

It’s time for a reality check. Although I am both a born and bred New Yorker and a busy, professional artist’s model all around town, I’d better disabuse myself of any foolish notion that I am in any way the quintessential art model of this city. Because I most certainly am not. Not by a longshot. Sure I have hung on the walls of galleries, studios, and arts clubs throughout the city. But nowhere do I appear in the historic Beaux-Arts architecture of New York. My image and figure are not immortalized atop the 40 story Municipal Building. Nor are they sculpted into the arch of the Manhattan Bridge. Neither are they in the Metropolitan Museum, outside the Customs House in Bowling Green, in the lobby of the Hotel Astor, atop the Pulitzer fountain at the former Plaza Hotel, on the Mercury dime, or outside the New York Public Library. Furthermore, I have never been named “Queen of the Artist’s Studios” or “Miss Manhattan”. Those honors belong to one model, and one model alone: Audrey Munson. SHE was New York City’s artist’s model.

If any art model tries to win a “battle of credentials” with Audrey Munson, she will lose big time, as Audrey beats all of us hands down. One of my readers, Robert, a sculptor and fellow blogger over at Dorset Sculpture, commented here recently about art models being “immortalized”. He’s right. And the great Audrey Munson embodies that idea to an incomparable degree. We are talking about a woman whose gaze stares down at this city of millions from every corner – north and south, east and west, high above, carved in granite and marble, commemorating and memorializing events both solemn and celebratory. In art and architecture, in gildings and arches and almost every public square, Audrey Munson owns this city.

Audrey Marie Munson was born in 1891, in a small town in upstate New York called Mexico, near Rochester. After her parents divorced, Audrey moved to the city with her mother where she was discovered by a photographer. He asked her to pose at the young age of fifteen. Pose nude, that is. The photographer then introduced Audrey to the sculptor Isador Konti and he too asked her to pose. Soon the young girl from upstate New York was the most popular, in-demand artist’s model in the city.

Audrey Munson, 1922:

It seems that every prominent sculptor in New York was clamoring to work with her, and Audrey Munson achieved a significant level of celebrity. She even wrote a newspaper column for a time. In 1915, American sculptor Alexander Calder selected Audrey as the featured model for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which was held in San Francisco. Munson posed for an astonishing 3/4 of all the sculpture at that event.

Here is Audrey as The Star Maiden, one of Calder’s most famous works of her:

What’s most impressive is Audrey Munson’s role as the symbolic figure of New York City’s civic glory, it’s splendid grandeur as a vast, powerful, burgeoning metropolis. Here she is as the model for Civic Fame, the statue that sits atop the Municipal Building on Centre Street. Constructed of copper sheets over a steel frame, Audrey’s flowing figure holds a five-pointed crown in one hand to symbolize the five boroughs of New York. In the other hand she holds a shield and a laurel branch. This is the second largest statue in the city. What’s the first? Oh just a little thing called The Statue of Liberty:

This is Audrey in the Fireman’s Memorial at 100th Street and Riverside Drive. It was created of pink marble by Italian stone carver Attilio Piccirilli in 1914. I have seen this sculpture in person and it’s really beautiful:

The Melvin Memorial by Daniel Chester French, honors soldiers who died in the Civil War. It’s on view at the Metropolitan Museum:

Here is Audrey in Memory, the memorial sculpture in Straus Park at 107th Street and Broadway. It honors Ida and Isador Straus who died on the Titanic in 1912. Augustus Lukeman was the sculptor:

The Pomona Statue, by Karl Bitter, atop the Pulitzer Fountain in Grand Army Plaza, 59th Street and Fifth Avenue:

Audrey Munson went to Hollywood and tried her hand at silent films. She was the first woman to ever appear nude in a film. Her role was, appropriately, that of an artist’s model. Talk about typecasting! The name of the film was Inspiration, and that is just too perfect for me, my blog, and for art models everywhere! Inspiration indeed. Here is a still from that film:

However, Audrey’s career in films fizzled out quickly. She returned to the east coast and found that the unfair, fickle nature of fame had already “retired” her. The Beaux-Arts construction boom was over. And Audrey was left behind, forgotten so fast it was almost as if she never existed. She and her mother lived in a NYC boarding house, where Audrey took up an affair with their married landlord, Dr. Walter Wilkins. Wilkins murdered his wife to free himself for Audrey. Although Audrey and her mother had already left town and had nothing to do with the murder whatsoever, the police still tracked her down to question her. She was cleared, of course, but was forever stigmatized, the mere association of her name with the scandalous events ruined her completely. Wilkins was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, but he hung himself in his prison cell before the sentence was carried out.

Back upstate in Mexico, Audrey was alienated and alone. She sold kitchen utensils door-to-door. It is speculated that the conservative-minded small town didn’t approve of the local girl who had “posed nude”. Whispers, snickers, and self-righteous moral judgments might have been too much for Audrey to handle. Feeling like an outcast, she attempted suicide, but failed. She was subsequently confined to a psychiatric facility and remained there for the rest of her life. In 1996, Audrey Munson died in that institution. She was 104 years old.

In the cruelest of ironies, Audrey Munson, the great sculptor’s model and muse, is buried in an unmarked grave in upstate New York. Yes, you read that correctly. An unmarked gravestone. Since the crime of that oversight bothers me a great deal, I will close this post with Audrey’s own words. I want her to have the last word, because her sensitive, eloquent statement expresses the purpose and heart of this blog far better than any of my own in all my posts. Her words struck me in a profound way, as if a prophesy from my predecessor. They are the perfect articulation of why I conceived Museworthy in the first place; to honor people like Audrey Munson, and the hard work and inspiration they provided to artists everywhere, lest they be forgotten. She wrote this in one of her newspaper columns:

“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?’”

Blog site devoted to Audrey Munson
New York Times article “The Girl Beneath the Gilding”